For American soccer fans during the last twenty years, there has been nothing more irritating than Mexican soccer. The problem has been less the rivalry than the condescension. We have been subjected to a stream of anti-Yanqui propaganda—how much more stylistic the Mexican national team is than the American, how much less reliant on athleticism, how much more elegant and refined. And yet during this period the tricolores have been consistently dreadful to watch—treating players who could actually run with haughty suspicion, and prone to such a turgid midfield that they seemed to be defending turgidity as an aesthetic proposition. The goalkeepers are ridiculous. The national icon for the last decade has been Cuauhtémoc Blanco, a walrus of a man who relied on ball tricks but who, against first-rate competition, never seemed to have the pulmonary capacity to get within forty yards of goal. For years the tricolores have skated by on their built-in advantages—theirs is the wealthiest league in the western hemisphere, their fans are by far the most vigorous and numerous of any in North America, and they play their home games 5,000 feet above sea level, in a city so choked with smog it slows opposing teams to a stupor. Their press, meanwhile, has wondered why Mexican players, dynamos at home, always seemed to disappoint when they signed with European clubs. But there was no mystery. Their style of football had been left behind, and their players couldn't adapt.
So it's been arresting and exciting, over the last couple of years, to see the Mexicans finally catch on, and find a compromise with the modern game. Perhaps, after a decade of getting beaten by the unrefined Yanquis, the Mexican Federation finally realized it wasn't a sin to be able to run. The current team—heavily dependent on the quick, exciting young attackers Dos Santos, Vela, and Rodriguez—has been one of the best to watch in the pre-World Cup friendlies. Mexico destroyed Italy, 3-1, and outplayed England before losing by the same score. The old vanity of Mexican soccer was that their deft possession game would lull opponents, and leave them vulnerable to attacks. But Mexico never seemed to actually attack—they just spent ninety minutes lulling, quite content. Now, they can attack. Mexico is too young to be a real threat at this World Cup. But in players like Vela and the slight, spectacularly irresponsible wingback Efraín Juárez, you can begin to sense a different idea of Latin football emerging, one informed by the best of the English game, its speed and ambition. They are, too, a perfect team to open this African World Cup, as exciting a suggestion of the shape of football to come as any other side.